In a legislative session that has been relatively short on controversy, a bill to expand the Birmingham Water Works Board and add members outside of Birmingham has been one of the most contentious issues.
Democrats led by Sen. Roger Smitherman, D-Birmingham, claimed the bill was an attempt to reduce the City of Birmingham’s influence on the water works board. Sen. Jabo Waggoner, R-Vestavia Hills and his allies pointed out that communities surrounding the City of Birmingham actually make up a larger portion of the population served by the water works, but have not to this point had any representation on the board.
The City of Birmingham hired a powerhouse group of lobbyists to fight the bill, including an attorney in Rob Riley’s (son of former Gov. Bob Riley) law firm, along with Fine Geddie & Associates, former state senator Curt Lee and former Water Works Board chairman Anthony Barnes, among others.
A previous attempt to pass the bill in the senate failed because Republicans lacked the votes to end Smitherman’s filibuster. But the bill sailed through Tuesday by a vote of 20-9, after Republicans mustered the 2/3 vote required to end debate.
“I am pleased that my colleagues joined me in passing this much needed legislation that is very important to the consumers and ratepayers in the region of Alabama I represent,” Waggoner said. “My legislation requires disclosure and unquestioned accountability in all Birmingham Water Works transactions.”
Waggoner pointed to numerous examples of abuse, waste, mismanagement and alleged fraud at the Birmingham Water Works as further justification for the bill.
An internal forensic audit was commissioned by the water works board in 2012 after an overtime fraud scheme involving water works employees came to light. According to Michael Mason of Forensic CPAs, who conducted the audit, his findings suggested “a serious lack of an adequate control culture throughout the organization.”
“The audit graphically cataloged many examples of the serious internal problems within the Birmingham Water Works and illustrated the need for resolute action now,” Waggoner added.
Here’s a quick rundown of the reforms contained Waggoner’s Senate Bill 344:
1. All current members of the Birmingham Water Works Board serve out their current terms
2. When the first vacancy occurs, the Jefferson County Mayor’s Association will appoint the replacement
3. A board member will be appointed by the Jefferson County Commission
4. By rotation, the county commissions from the four counties receiving water from the Birmingham Water Works — Blount, Shelby, St. Clair and Walker — will appoint one member each
5. All members of the Birmingham Water Works Boards are limited to two terms
6. Compensation for Birmingham Water Works Board members will be limited to $500 per month
7. Board members and Water Works employees will be explicitly subject to the state Ethics Law
8. Public hearings are required prior to a rate increase
The bill now makes its way to the Alabama House where it is being sponsored by State Rep. Paul DeMarco, R-Homewood.
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